Which iPad Should I Get?

A lot of people ask me for advice before buying Apple products. The questions usually take one of two forms: (1) Should I buy one now, or should I wait until the next one comes out? or (2) Now that I’ve decided to buy one, which model should I get? I’m going to try to answer both today, with regard to the just-announced new iPad. (I may refer to it as the 2012 iPad for clarity.)

Right off the bat, I want to note that I stole the idea for this post from Marco Arment, who posted his iPad buying advice yesterday. I agree with almost everything Marco wrote, and his post is recommended reading for anyone thinking of buying a new iPad. However, the people who ask me for advice are a little different from Marco’s audience, so I’m going to tailor my advice a little differently.

I don’t have an iPad. Should I get this one?

If you otherwise want to buy an iPad, then absolutely, buy this one. If you’ve been holding off on buying an iPad, this is the time to go for it. Apple’s mobile devices tend to follow a major-minor cycle, where a major release one year is followed by a more minor update the following year. The 2012 iPad is most definitely a major release, and should provide good longevity. Of course, there’s always next year’s model, which will surely be better than this year’s. But: there’s always next year’s model. If you take that approach, you end up waiting forever.

That said, there’s no reason anyone “should” get an iPad if they don’t want one. I sometimes get asked, “Why should I buy an iPad?” In general, if you’re asking that question, you probably shouldn’t. Chances are, that means you’re happy with the technology you already have and aren’t really looking to buy another device.

I already have an iPad or iPad 2. Should I upgrade?

In general, I advise people to upgrade on the major part of the major-minor upgrade cycle. I think it gives you the best bang for your buck, in terms of how long the device lasts. I bought an iPhone 4 and and original iPad in 2010, but sat out both the iPhone 4S and the iPad 2 in 2011. Both the 4S and the iPad 2 are great devices, but I didn’t feel a compelling need to upgrade. This year I plan on upgrading both to their 2012 versions.

For original iPad owners thinking about upgrading, I’d strongly recommend getting a 2012 iPad. The retina display is a big, big upgrade, particularly if you do a lot of reading on your iPad. Text is going to look amazingly clear and sharp.

For iPad 2 owners, the question is a little tougher. The 2012 iPad contains the same basic processor as the iPad 2, meaning most new apps should continue to run fine on the iPad 2. If you’re happy with your iPad 2, don’t feel like you need to upgrade. In fact, it might be worth sitting out the next iPad release as well, and getting the 2014 model, since that’s likely to be the next major upgrade in the cycle.

That said, the retina display on the 2012 iPad is a big step up from the iPad 2. If you care a lot about the clarity of text and photos, it’s worth considering and upgrade. One nice thing about iPads is they hold their value fairly well. If you’re interested in upgrading, you may be able to sell your iPad 2 for a fair portion of your original purchase price, and use that toward a 2012 iPad.

Should I get 16, 32, or 64GB?

It really depends on whether you plan on keeping a lot of media on your iPad. I don’t keep much music on mine, but I do tend to load it up with a fair number of movies and TV shows before a long flight. I find the 32GB capacity works great. The 16GB is also fine if you don’t need to store as much media. I doubt that many people I know would have a use for the 64GB model.

Should I get the 4G LTE model?

This is the question where I differ most from Marco’s advice. The 4G option does give you greater flexibility in Internet access, but in my experience most people I know use their iPad in places where Wi-Fi access is available. If you think you’ll use it, by all means get a 4G model – it looks like a great product. But I think it’s probably overkill for most people, especially if you have a phone that you can use as a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Black or white?

Mostly, it’s just a personal preference. I lean toward black, mostly because I think the idea of watching a movie surrounded by a white border is a little odd. But if you like the white, go for it.

Did you get a new iPad? Which one and why?

I ordered a black 32GB Wi-Fi iPad with a green smart cover. Although I was tempted by the 4G LTE option, I mostly use my iPad at home and didn’t think I’d get enough use out of 4G to justify the extra cost. I’m upgrading from a Wi-Fi original iPad, and there were very few times that I wished for 3G. For any times I do need connectivity on the go, I’ll just use the personal hotspot feature on my iPhone. I assume the next iPhone (which I plan on buying) will have LTE as well.

A Worse User Experience

In compliance with Apple’s rules for the iOS App Store, Amazon recently updated their iOS Kindle app to remove the “Kindle Store” button. Previously, tapping that button in the app launched MobileSafari and loaded a mobile-optimized version of the Kindle Store web site. Books could (and still can) be purchased through that site and then accessed from within the Kindle app.

Dan Frommer argues that Apple’s ban on in-app links to web sites that sell content is bad for users:

Now, Apple device owners will have to figure out on their own that they need to go to Amazon’s website in their Safari browser to buy stuff to read with their Kindle app.

This is a worse customer experience. Apple’s devices are now slightly harder and clumsier to use. And it’s Apple’s fault.

From now on, if developers want to sell virtual goods and subscriptions that don’t go through Apple’s in-app iTunes payment system — which forks over a 30% cut to Apple and puts developers at risk of patent lawsuits — they aren’t allowed to link to those other e-commerce stores in their apps anymore.

He’s right: it’s a much poorer user experience. But even worse, companies link Amazon couldn’t sell their content through Apple’s in-app purchase system, even if they wanted to. According to Apple’s iTunes Connect Developer Guide (PDF), developers can only create “up to 3000 separate product IDs assigned to your In-App Purchases per app.” Amazon’s Kindle Store claims to contain “more than 950,000 Books, Kindle Singles, Newspapers, Magazines, Blogs, Audiobooks, and Games & Active Content.”

Even if books represented only a tiny fraction of the 950,000 items in the Kindle Store catalog, there would be far more than Apple’s 3,000-per-app limit. And even if Amazon were willing and able to pay Apple’s 30% cut on Kindle sales and use the official iOS in-app purchase system, technical limitations set by Apple prevent them from doing so.

The end result, then, is a crappy deal for users. Forget whether Amazon can make money while paying a 30% cut. Forget the risk of patent liability and the investment of time and money required to start using Apple’s in-app purchase system. The fact of the matter is, Apple has made getting books onto iOS devices harder. Users must magically know how to switch to MobileSafari and navigate to the Kindle Store, instead of tapping on an easy-to-use “buy” or “store” button. That doesn’t sound like the kind of experience Apple wants to create. It sounds more like Android.

Physical Media for Lion

A number of news outlets reported yesterday that Apple will distribute Mac OS X 10.7 Lion via the Mac app store. It’s a logical conclusion, given that they’ve distributed the Lion developer previews through the Mac App Store. However, it makes me wonder whether they’ll provide some kind of physical media as well. There are a number of scenarios where you want to be able to do a fresh reinstall of the OS, like a hard drive failure, or need to boot off another medium, perhaps to run Disk Utility on your startup drive.

Apple ships the MacBook Air with a Software Reinstall USB drive, which allows users to restore the machine to its original configuration without using an optical disc. The USB drive itself is quite small, and is a little flimsier than the kind of drive you might want to carry around with you. It probably costs Apple very little to make, and I’d say it’s a good candidate to be the physical media for Lion.

The big question in my mind is whether Apple will charge an additional fee to get Lion on a USB drive. It seems that the Mac App Store will be the preferred distribution method for Lion, although I imagine it will also be available stand-alone on USB or DVD. (After all, not everyone has the bandwidth to download a 3-4GB operating system.) There are three possible scenarios for App Store buyers:

  1. Apple provides Lion on USB for no extra charge. Upon installing and registering your copy of Lion, the OS asks for an address where you’d like the USB reinstall drive sent.
  2. App Store buyers pay small fee for Lion on USB. At some point in the process (in the App Store itself? upon registering?), you’re given a chance to buy a USB reinstall drive for a small fee, maybe $10 or $15.
  3. No physical media option. In this scenario, App Store buyers are out of luck when it comes to getting a physical copy. In order to get a USB install drive, you have to buy a boxed copy of Lion. This doesn’t seem particularly plausible to me, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. One interesting permutation is that it may be possible to put the Lion installer onto your own USB drive manually.

If I had to place a bet, I’d go with option 1, but only by a hair. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see Apple pick option number 2.

What if there were no Coke at Disney World? Or, Problems with Apple’s in-app purchase rules

Apple made a lot of waves last week with it’s announcement regarding In-App Purchases (IAP). They introduced two major changes. First, developers can now sell auto-renewing subscriptions on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis. Second, Apple has revised the App Store Review Guidelines to require the use of in-app purchase in a number of situations.
I’m going to leave subscriptions aside for now and concentrate on the new App Store rules governing the use of in-app purchases. Subscriptions are important, but I think they’re just a part of the larger problem developing around IAP. Apple’s new requirements are as follows. Apps that allow you to use content purchased elsewhere, such as through a web store, must allow you to purchase the same content using IAP. Moreover, apps must offer that content via IAP at an equal or lesser price, even though Apple takes a 30% cut of all in-app purchases. Finally, apps may not include links to web sites or other “external mechanisms” though which the content can be bought without giving Apple it’s 30% commission. The relevant sections of the App Store Review Guidelines are below:

11.13 Apps can read or play approved content (magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, video) that is sold outside of the app, for which Apple will not receive any portion of the revenues, provided that the same content is also offered in the app using IAP at the same price or less than it is offered outside the app. This applies to both purchased content and subscriptions.

11.14 Apps that link to external mechanisms for purchasing content to be used in the app, such as a “buy” button that goes to a web site to purchase a digital book, will be rejected.

Leaving aside any possible anti-competitive behaviors going, the biggest problem with Apple’s new rules is that they’re bad for customers, and thus they’re bad for Apple. Why? It’s all about customer choice.

Amazon’s Kindle app is a fantastic example. Until now, it hasn’t been possible to buy books through the Kindle app. Instead, the app includes a “Kindle Store” button that launches Mobile Safari with an iPhone-optimized version of the Amazon.com Kindle website. Users can then  search and browse for books. Upon purchasing a book, a button can direct the user back to the Kindle app, where the book will be downloaded and made available for reading.

Now, imagine the same app under Apple’s new rules. The Kindle Store link will be gone. Without it, most users will have no idea they can buy Kindle books through the Amazon website. Instead, the app will have a searchable list of books that can be purchased directly within the app. From a user experience point of view, it’s great.

So what’s the problem? It’s hard to imagine Amazon making any money this way. I’m no book publisher, but I’ve read that margins in the industry are quite low. Remember, Amazon must pay a substantial portion of the sale price to the book’s publisher. What’s left after the publisher’s cut and Apple’s 30% cut? Very little – perhaps not enough to make the Kindle app worth Amazon’s while. Ordinarily, we might expect the added costs from Apple’s 30% commission to get passed on to consumers via higher prices for books purchased within the app. But Apple has specifically banned that practice.

Instead, Amazon might choose to pull the Kindle app from the iPhone and iPad. That’s neither good for consumers nor good for Apple. Sure, consumers could still buy books through Apple’s own iBooks store, but generally speaking, the selection is worse and the prices are higher. Furthermore, you can’t read iBooks on anything but iOS devices. There’s no reader for Mac, Windows, web, anything. (I expect an iBooks reader for Mac one of these days, but that’s another matter.)

John Gruber tweeted this analogy:

App Store : Apple :: Disney World : Disney They make money on everything you buy in the park.

It might be a fair analogy, but it doesn’t mean it’s good for customers. Suppose that Disney charged a fee on every Coke sold at Disney World, but also required that the price of a Coke in the park be the same as the price of a Coke at your local gas station. If the fee were high enough that Coke couldn’t make money, they’d just stop selling soda at Disney World. Coke and Disney don’t care; they’re raking in so much money elsewhere that they probably wouldn’t even notice the lost sales. It’s the visitors to Disney World who suffer – they can’t buy a Coke when they want one.

Likewise, these new IAP rules are bad for Apple. Neither Apple nor companies like Amazon will notice much in the way of lost sales. The people who get screwed are the customers, who suddenly aren’t able to buy the products they want. Sure, they get a better user experience from those developers willing to play Apple’s game, but they’ll be missing out on critical content. If I can’t buy the book I want on my iPad, what good does it do me that the user experience would be better, if only they carried my book?

Certainly nobody, not even Amazon, is going to abandon iOS overnight. But clearly, Apple is in the iOS business for the long haul, and it’s still early enough that they could falter with serious consequences. Thankfully, there’s an easy fix – charge less. Apple’s original justification for the 30% commission for apps is that it pays for the (substantial) overhead involved in payment processing, storage, and bandwidth to send apps to customers. For in-app purchases, however, only payment processing is relevant. (For example, Amazon’s library of Kindle titles isn’t stored on Apple’s servers or downloaded through their network.) To solve the problem, Apple needs only to reduce their commission on in-app purchases to something more in line with a credit card processor — maybe 5%.

Apple’s policies for the App Store have a way of starting out sounding draconian and relaxing over time. Hopefully we’re in the first stage of that process, and Apple will come to their senses sooner rather than later.

99¢ TV Rentals from NBC

AppleInsider reported yesterday that NBC strongly opposes Apple’s 99¢ price point for TV show rentals. Though NBC offers shows for purchase on iTunes for $1.99 ($2.99 for an HD version), NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker was quoted as saying 99¢ rentals “would devalue our content.” Putting aside the reasonableness of this position, NBC’s credibility on the issue is pretty weak. Why? They’ve caved on iTunes pricing before.
Think back to late summer 2007, when NBC pulled all of its content from iTunes after Apple refused to increase the per-episode price to $4.99. At the time, NBC shows accounted for 30% of TV show sales on iTunes. A year later, NBC was back on iTunes at the same price point, along with HD versions for $2.99. Apple held their ground on pricing, and NBC backed down. Apple doesn’t need NBC shows. People will still buy iPods and iPhones, and even Apple TVs, without 99¢ TV rentals from NBC. Might Apple sell more devices if they had NBC on board? Sure. But something tells me they aren’t wetting their pants about waiting NBC out on this one.

Boxee Box vs. Apple TV

I’ve been thinking about buying some kind of Internet-connected TV set-top box, for movies and TV shows, for quite a while now, but I recently took the plunge and pre-ordered the new Apple TV. I’ve avoided buying a Blu-ray player, because I don’t want to buy a whole new set of (more expensive) discs when it seems like a fully disc-less future is right around the corner. Both Apple TV, shipping in the next 2-4 weeks, and the Boxee Box, which entered pre-orders today, seem to fit into the new no-disc world I’m looking for.
Conceptually, the two share a basic idea: stream content from the Internet or, in the case of Apple TV, other devices, to your TV. They’re both pretty small boxes that sit unobtrusively on a shelf. Originally, I thought I might go for the Boxee Box, which just entered pre-orders, but in the end, I thought Apple TV was a better fit. Here’s why:

Content I Want
Apple TV gets most of its content from iTunes. You can rent and stream movies and TV shows from the iTunes store, and they’ve got a decent selection to choose from. My guess (and Apple’s) is that the catalog of TV shows available to rent at $0.99 per episode will expand over time. That’s certainly been the case with the library of music and movies. You can also stream movies and TV shows from other Macs and iOS devices in your home. (More on that in a minute.) Finally, Apple TV can play movies available for instant watching from Netflix. I can already do that with my TiVo, but it’s a nice perk to have it integrated with the Apple TV as well.

Boxee, on the other hand, streams content from online video sources. It sports and impressive library of TV shows available to stream instantly. However, most of those shows come directly from ad-supported sites run by the networks that produced the show – NBC, TBS, etc. I don’t mind ads all the time, but I want the option of paying for content without them. Moreover, Boxee doesn’t seem to offer a movie library at all, although like Apple TV, it does integrate with Netflix and allows you to play videos from your computer.

Sadly though, those movies and TV shows from iTunes won’t play on the Boxee Box – they’re protected by Apple’s copyright protection. Nobody loves DRM, but it seems it’s a necessary evil for now, and if I have to buy copyright protected-content from somewhere, it’ll probably be from iTunes. I also keep my music and movies in iTunes, and I want a box that connects seamlessly to iTunes running on my computer. That means Apple TV.

Other Devices
Both Apple TV and Boxee Box can play music and videos stored on your computer. However, Apple as taken things one step further. Starting with the release of iOS 4.2 for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, you’ll be able to stream video from your mobile devices to your Apple TV. That means I can
download or rent a movie on my phone and play it on the big screen with my Apple TV. More enticingly, anecdotal reports suggest that streaming from iOS to Apple TV isn’t limited to iTunes content, suggesting the possibility of streaming all sorts of video content, from YouTube to live MLB games from the MLB app.

The new Apple TV is $99, while the Boxee Box is $199.
I could buy or rent a lot of movies and TV shows on iTunes with the $100 difference — and none of them would have ads.

Open Standards

I’ve seen quite a few blog and Twitter posts complaining that the live video stream of today’s Apple media event is available on Mac OS and iOS only. Moreover, some people seem to be upset because Apple claims to be using “open standards.” Most of these complains are something along the lines of “What good are open standards if you can only access them from Apple products?”
Apple is the first to admit that the live stream is only available on Apple devices, and only a subset of them at that:

Viewing requires either a Mac® running Safari® on Mac OS® X version 10.6 Snow Leopard®, an iPhone® or iPod touch® running iOS 3.0 or higher, or an iPad™.

But that’s not the end of the argument. I think what people are complaining about is the use of the word “standard.” Surely, anyone can comply with the open HTTP Live Streaming specification, though it is probably not 100% finalized. It is not, however, standard. The word “standard” implies wide use and acceptance, and although HTTP Live Streaming will probably become a true standard eventually, it’s not yet a standard today.

I think Apple is using the term the way most people understand it, however. “Open standard” has come to mean something more along the lines of “not closed and proprietary.” The point is not how commonly it is used, but whether it could be used by anyone who wished to develop software using the proposed specification. The more widely it’s used, the more “standard” it becomes. Applying the word “standard” only to software already in wide use does little more than make “standard” synonymous with “old” or “outdated.”

One last note about Apple’s choice of HTTP Live Streaming for the media event today: streaming live video is a tricky business. Back in the day, Apple had all kinds of trouble with video streams of keynote addresses – they’d break down from high traffic, and were often of fairly terrible quality. Especially since this is the first live stream they’ve done in a while, I’d expect Apple to pick the technology they were most confident would work well. In fact, that’s always Apple’s MO: use the best technology available to deliver the best user experience. If there are side effects of those choices that people don’t like, tough. That’s just how Apple works.